Kealey, Women-as-Job-Perks, and Feminism from First Principles

Readers may have come across this story, in which vice-chancellor at a British university publically advises (male, straight) academics to leer at their female students as ‘a perk’. It has, predictably, sparked outrage from many and defense from many others, and I’m not going to repeat that stuff – partly because, this seems to be the sort of thing where some look at it and intuitively get that this is objectionable, while other people may simply not ‘get it’, and more forceful articulations may remain too intuitive to ‘get across’ effectively to the opposite group.

The same sort of thing applies to most of the media; plenty of people can agree that, yes, people of a certain race are rarely seen in films outside of certain roles and settings, and yes, adverts feature female bodies presented as bodily more often than they do male bodies, and yes, this Kealey fellow speaks as if the only sexual question is between male professors and female students. But so what? People just need to man up and deal with it. And yes, the phrase ‘man up’ is a gendered expression, but people need to man up and deal with that too.

Perhaps a more theoretical argument may be persuasive to some such people; if not, perhaps it might be useful and worth consdering. That is, if we think that these phenomena are not just distasteful but pernicious, we might think it worthwhile to sketch how that relates to something rather like ‘first principles’. And if we find that different people draw the same conclusion from different premises, that’s something worth learning.

1) So I think the first general premise would be something like this: understanding a thought that’s presented from someone else involves mentally recreating that thought at some level. To see that someone’s words mean that they hate the way you dress, you have to form in your head something like hatred of the way you dress.

Of course, it’s not the exact same thing, since we often don’t agree – we put that thought ‘in brackets’, in a context like ‘this is how the world would look if I thought like X does’, which removes much of its force. But it seems that there must be, in an important sense, a resemblance between the other person’s thought, and your thinking-that-they-think-it. Otherwise, how would you know what their thoughts were? For me to know what it means that ‘X is angry’, surely, is to be able to connect that idea to my own personal experience of anger.

2) The second premise is that we think, on a lot of topics, by moving around a ‘landscape’ formed by ideas taken from other people – the thoughts that I know others think provide the coordinates in which I do my own thinking. The more often in everyday life I have to ‘rehearse’ a way of thinking, by seeing/hearing it from someone else, the more familiar it will be and the more easily my mind will slip into it. It will seem more natural.

Key point, I think, is that this is to some extent independent of our ‘bracketing’ of those ways of thinking. Even if I consciously reject an idea each time I encounter it, the effort of simply understand it still makes it a bit easier to accept, a bit more natural.

3) And as a third premise, I’d suggest that this plays a bit role not only in explicit conscious thought but in the layers of processing that aren’t as transparent to us. Most of our reactions and decisions, arguably, are made on grounds that we don’t fully understand – what ‘seems right’ or ‘feels most appropriate’.

Natural inference from those premises: many of our reactions and feelings will be deeply affected, regardless of our personal willpower and beliefs, by the ways of thinking that we are surrounded by.

So for instance, these remarks from Kealey involve having to put yourself in a frame of mind where:

1) you’re male

2) you’re looking at women sexually

3) you can describe a class of people as ‘perks’ of your job

None of these things is necessarily bad in itself. But they are so familiar. To think of someone as an object is pretty unavoidable (by definition); but this if such ways of thinking are cropping up all the time, so that it becomes more ‘natural’ to see things from such a viewpoint than any alternative (such a female gaze/objectified man, or just not a seuxalised gaze) then that has a big effect on the power and health of different groups of people.

This case is particularly noteworthy just in that it involves a (normally more covert) pattern of this sort being endorsed in a public forum by someone with a certain amount of ‘respectability’. That will interact with the aforementioned processes in proportion as concepts like ‘public forum’ and ‘respectability’ are more emotional than they are cognitive (which is: quite a bit).

My aim was to put those who disagree with feminist objections in a tight spot – it seems to me they have to deny either 1, 2, or 3. Denying 1, it seems to me, requires a very counter-intuitive theory of mind: that we can understand ‘X hopes for Y’ without connecting it to our own experience of hoping for things. That’s obviously not the whole story, but I don’t think it could be left out.

Denying 2 or 3 might be done – saying either that we have complete autonomy over how we think about things, and construct our worldview from the ground up without depending on society, or that we are so perfectly self-aware that we also know exactly why we think things.

A position like that sounds very strange and very unrealistic – also, it seems much less suitable for an evolutionary understanding of the mind, as something that grew up out of simple processes getting more complex. But I would certainly imagine it’s at the back of many people’s minds, for whatever reason.

Of course, that it might be at the back of someone’s mind, influencing their judgements but not explicitly held, would itself be the start of a good refutation of it.

In sum, hysterical feminist over-reactions with no sense of humour are the natural conclusion of common-sense assumptions about how the human mind works.

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